Looking objectively at the legacy of Billy Graham in the wake of his passing is virtually impossible, especially for me personally. I know several people who answered the altar call at a Graham crusade, “just as I am without one plea, but that Thy blood was shed for me,” and mark that occasion as their conversion to Christ; and about these conversions I have no doubt. Then again, I grew up in a fundamentalism that demanded full separation from the likes of Billy Graham, because he associated with the likes of Roman Catholics and liberals; and their concerns were real because Graham’s increasingly broad associations throughout his career—always in order to preach the Gospel to a larger audience—transformed what was essentially a fundamentalist Baptist appeal to repent and believe into a postmodern “make of this what you will” message. And then again, I am a Missouri-Synod Lutheran who confesses along with the Small Catechism that “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him”; and that last phrase contradicts the letter, and to an extent the spirit, of that sweet old hymn of the crusade altar call, which my heart still loves: “O Lamb of God, I come.” Am I saved by grace alone through faith alone, or on account of my asking Jesus into my heart? Was Graham’s message, then, faith in Christ or faith in faith—or a confusion of both? And does it matter, since millions heard the message of Christ as a result of Graham’s ministry?
In short: What will you do with Billy Graham? The answer is as complicated as American culture and the history of evangelicalism from the Great Awakening to today. What I refuse to do, as Andrew Lytle put it, is damn Graham for his virtues.
Others disagree—specifically left-liberal-feminist journalist Lauren Duca, age 25. “Have fun in hell, bitch,” she tweeted after Dr. Graham passed away. I should note here that Miss Duca is a columnist for Teen Vogue, whose circulation is over one million. “We’re a woke brand, and our readers are woke, too,” editor Elaine Welteroth, age 29, told the Guardian.
Rolling Stone got in on the fun of sending Billy Graham to the place that exists only for Hitler in the liberal mind, in a piece about the evangelist’s death that is perversely homoerotic. The author, Bob Moser, agrees with Miss Duca that what makes Graham evil is his opposition to “the LGBT community.” Mr. Moser faults Graham for misleading him as a child. Having homosexual inclinations, Moser went to a crusade with his parents, walked the aisle, and got saved; but his same-sex attraction did not go away, and later he was somehow aghast to hear Graham refer to sodomy as an “insidious temptation.” “We traffic in homosexuality at the peril of our spiritual welfare,” wrote Graham in a syndicated newspaper column. “Your affection for another of your own sex is misdirected, and you will be judged by God’s holy standards.” That freshly googled column is what sent Duca over the edge as well, and even after some backlash from FOX News over her hells and damns, she doubled down. Citing Graham’s statement—a.k.a. what Christians have believed for two millennia—she added, “If hell is real, that’s exactly where he’s headed.”
Meanwhile, Barack Obama was hoisted by his own petard of intersectionality. The former president dared to tweet something nice about Graham, and quickly was slapped down by his former idolaters, who cried that Obama had “insulted” them by praising a “staunchly religious and prejudiced public figure like Graham” (“Honoring Billy Graham dishonors those he marginalized,” Columbia Chronicle).
The most notorious example of Dr. Graham’s “prejudice,” which every commentary subsequent to the blasting of the feminist bat signal mentioned, was his taped conversations with Richard Nixon concerning “the Jews,” which is supposedly proof of Graham’s virulent antisemitism. When several hitherto unreleased Nixon tapes were made public in 2002, the media seized on this gotcha opportunity, selectively citing Graham and putting in quotation marks the phrase “Satanic Jews.”
The entire transcript is indeed shocking—shocking, that is, to modern hypersensitive ears incapable of evaluating the words and the context. The phone conversation between Nixon and Graham took place on February 21, 1973, immediately following the Israeli Air Force’s shooting down of Libyan Arab Airlines Flight 114, a regular passenger flight from Tripoli to Benghazi and then Cairo. The plane had veered off course into Israeli airspace over the Sinai Peninsula, the pilots were on instruments only because of a sandstorm, and they mistook the Israeli Phantom jets suddenly flanking them for Egyptian MIGs. The result was that 108 out of 113 passengers, including one American, wound up dead. Furthermore, Golda Meir was soon to arrive at the Nixon White House for peace talks, followed by Anwar Sadat.
All of this is on Nixon’s mind when he tells Graham, “Now the Israelis, you see, what they do with a thing like this is they lose all of the support they have in the world, you know?” Graham then launches into his irritation at Jewish leaders in America who are opposing a large ecumenical evangelistic effort called “Key ’73,” pointing out that the powerful Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, director of the American Jewish Committee’s interreligious affairs department, had accused Christian evangelists of antisemitism because they might want, as a part of Key ’73, to convert Jews to Christianity. Nixon and Graham commiserate on the increasing dominance of the American media by Jews—something that Jon Stewart or Adam Sandler or a host of other comedians can joke about today, but was verboten even then, as Nixon acknowledges. Both attribute the rise of pornography in the mainstream media to Jewish editors, particularly Time’s Henry Grunwald, who as managing editor had just run a cover story on Marlon Brando’s Last Tango in Paris that celebrated the illicit sex of the film and included two pornographic stills. Both are irritated that this was Time’s cover story on the week of Nixon’s second inauguration. Graham takes pains to say that not all Jews are purveyors of pornography, obviously, but that he is concerned specifically about an anti-Christian influence in the media on Americans. In that context, he tells Nixon that, in the New Testament, there are two kinds of Jews mentioned, and one of the two is identified with the “synagogue of Satan.” Graham is genuinely shocked at the outrage of prominent Jewish leaders, writers, and editors against the Key ’73 initiative and its evangelical leaders, considering the latter’s great support of the state of Israel. This was his coda on Nixon’s statement about the difficulties of supporting Israel in the peace process.
Admittedly, blaming Jews for the mainstreaming of pornography involves ignoring the equally malign influence of Gentiles, including (in this case) Marlon Brando and writer/director Bernardo Bertolucci, who were essential to the operation. But to deny that there are Jews who hate Christians and the Gospel is to deny the Scripture (Revelation 3) that says so. Of course that is no excuse to persecute Jews. But clearly, since the words belong to the King of the Jews Himself, there is cause to recognize that there are those “of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie.”
Taxpayer- and listener-supported NPR did not disguise its seething disdain for Graham, declaring in its coverage of his death, “To some, he was ‘America’s Pastor,’ a benign pater familias blessing the nation. To others, he was the country’s leading hypocrite . . . ” Graham’s hypocrisy can be seen, according to NPR, in the fact that he did not attend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s march in Selma, even though Graham did post bail for King in 1957 in Albany, Georgia; insisted on integrating his evangelistic meetings fairly early and at great personal expense; and even invited King to offer a prayer at a Madison Square Garden meeting.
By inviting King to pray, Graham went a bridge too far. The problem was not that he refused to see his audience segregated. The problem was that Martin Luther King, Jr., was not a believer in the Christian Gospel, having “thrown off the shackles of fundamentalism” during his college years, as he put it, which meant he was free to disregard the embarrassing doctrines of the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection of Christ. These things King allegorized, like a good Mainline WASP of the 1950’s, reducing salvation to social justice. To whom, then, did King pray before the great audience at Madison Square Garden? And what effect did King’s liberation theology have on Graham’s hearers, following Graham’s endorsement of King?
Self-professed atheist and snobbish conservative George Will piles ignominy on Graham in the Washington Post, claiming that “Billy Graham was no prophet” because he was attended by large audiences and well-respected. He scoffs at Graham as an ignorant rube who lacked sophistication when it came to locker-room talk. “When Graham read transcripts of Nixon conspiring to cover up crimes,” chortles Will, “Graham said that what ‘shook me most’ was Nixon’s vulgar language.” How booboisie of him. Of course, we might add that Graham’s simpleness when it came to basic biblical morality allowed him to remain the husband of one wife, free of any hint of scandal, for over 60 years. No matter: Graham’s booboisie ness made him incapable of introspection and irony, according to George Will, who forgives Graham his antisemitism in order to convict him of the lesser (or is it?) charge of “toadying” to Nixon.
Despite Will’s disdain for Graham as a Proto-Deplorable, he may have something of a point with regard to Graham’s eagerness to curry favor with presidents. Or was it the other way around? Did they view his friendship as a means to an electoral end, given the broad popularity of the evangelist?
Graham was the first TV evangelist, having his crusades televised for audiences of millions. The sawdust trail was suited for the medium, because it allowed him to frame a decision for Christ as a television drama played in the living rooms of Americans and tens of thousands around the world. Graham equated his own fame and audience numbers with the possibility of increasing influence on behalf of the message of the Cross. But it was a truncated message, made for TV before there was TV, free of the novel’s backstory and character development essential for the unbeliever to understand just Who this Jesus is that “biddest me come to Thee.” Perhaps Graham assumed that Americans were “churched” enough to know Who Christ is. But that simply was not true during the 1950’s, nor was it true in the First Century. Nor is it true today. Graham, thus, can be faulted for continuing the American tradition of fostering a decision theology that has left generations of evangelical laymen without the protective bulwark of sound doctrine, easy prey for hucksters of health and wealth or egalitarian social justice. But he can’t be faulted for telling others that they had sinned against a God Who has redeemed them by His own blood, nor for believing it himself—and living accordingly.